Ibsen for Business Leaders

A reflective journey into Henrik Ibsen’s play The Master Builder could provide leaders with a better understanding of dilemmas and conflicts, claims Birgit Jevnaker at BI.


There are many reasons to read fiction, even for busy managers. And Henrik Ibsen should be a natural part of any executive’s literary briefcase. It is not uncommon that Norwegian executives meet foreign business associates who have read more Ibsen than they have. Associate Professor Birgit Jevnaker of BI Norwegian School of Management has taken it one step further. She has made Henrik Ibsen’s play “The Master Builder” compulsory reading for the management training program Leadership in Action.

Not past its expiry date
Can a century-old play really be used for modern executive training? And then as something more than cultural luggage? And instead of or as a supplement to technical literature about management, organisation and leadership? And what lessons can Ibsen teach us?

”Management and collaboration are often about how to handle dilemmas, ambiguousness and conflicts. Literature can serve as an entry point into experiencing and understanding the power structure in businesses,” Jevnaker says.

According to Jevnaker, much of the management literature, and particularly the US management tradition, is characterised by its normative angle in relation to myths about clear direction and management.

In real life, a manager’s challenges are often related to how he or she can understand dilemmas and facilitate cooperation and communication in complex situations.“Our students are faced with a chaotic working life where they also have to understand the darker and more subtle sides of management and organization.”

Potential for learning
It was at the very start of the International Henrik Ibsen Year in 2006 that Birgit Jevnaker made the initiative to include ’The Master Builder’ to the compulsory reading list. She chose this particular play due to its theme and because of the play’s profession-related setting. It was also important that the play was not too familiar, so that the students could access the material without any predefined labels.

‘The Master Builder’ deals with competence conflicts, encountering new knowledge, surprising interaction and ethical issues. There is a lot to delve into for those who want to explore leadership and leadership challenges,” Jevnaker says. The BI researcher has used Henrik Ibsen to make students approach the more contradictory and darker aspects of management – the life-lie of the business, that which is not discussed openly.

“Management is displayed in interaction. This means that we should become more aware of the hidden power embedded in informal networks in the organisation,” she says.

Jevnaker emphasises that ‘The Master Builder’ is not meant to be entertainment or a break from the very intensive management program. Henrik Ibsen encourages students to delve deeper into relevant leadership issues and to promote extensive reflection and a deeper understanding.

Success criteria
There is a lot of work and learning behind the adaptation of literary texts and theatre to management training. Based on her experiences thus far, Birgit Jevnaker has prepared five success criteria which increase the chance of succeeding:

Instruction and motivation: Preparation is the key. An important aspect of this entails motivating the students, stating clearly that we will work with this for a certain period with sufficient time being dedicated to this work. This way, we signal that this is something we are really going to work with, not a supplement for a few interested people.

Pre-reading of the material. As for case teaching, it is important that everyone is familiar with the material, that the students have read and studied the characters and the plot. Then, we can proceed to work on the play together.

Stimulating teaching: We need a few stimulating entry points to work on the play. It is often a good idea to make use of something specific in the play, and provide a few tags for how it can be related to the students’ own experiences. Engage in serious play using aesthetic means. Active student participation promotes both impression and expression.

Extra reflection support. Encourage many different interpretations. At the same time, provide instruction and help students help themselves make the connection between professional topics and points of view. One should not be afraid and avoid topics, but dare to discuss what the students bring up, using your own sound judgement to make connections and sort out what is irrelevant.

Creating archetypes, using expressive, creative language. Using the characters and themes of the play in the further teaching as a common aesthetic experience base. Using the characters of the master builder Solness, Ragnar, Hilde and Kaja to understand the organisations of today. Over time, this can help unify, differentiate and enhance the students’ understanding. Establish some entry-points and reference points to promote self-insight and an understanding of others.

”To benefit from an Ibsen play, students, teachers and artists must get involved and familiarise themselves with the text and the plot to make the play come alive.
”In art, passion and play there is a potential to act in new ways and achieve recognition,” Jevnaker states.

However, just to make it clear: it is not sufficient to read Henrik Ibsen to become a better leader.

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11 thoughts on “Ibsen for Business Leaders

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